Tag Archives: home automation

Connected, automated homes are the new frontier for big consumer electronics companies

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Home automation, powered by cloud-based artificial intelligence, is now a mainstream product category, taking center stage at the major consumer electronics companies’ booths at CES. The huge 4K and 8K screens that dominated Samsung’s display the past few years were stuck in a back corner, while the main aisles were lined with home appliances with voice recognition systems and driven by artificial intelligence.

LG led its press conference with artificial intelligence, via both its in-house platform and Google Assistant. Its flag bearer is CLOi, a smart speaker shaped like a cute little robot with expressive eyes that’s “capable of physical and emotional interaction”, according to marketing VP David VanderWaal.

Yes. It is.

He asked “what’s for dinner”? CLOi just blinked and stared at him. “CLOi, are you talking to me yet? What recipes can I make with chicken?” More blinks and stares. Instead of a virtual June Cleaver, VanderWaal was dancing with Peg Bundy. Sorry guys, AI won’t be a wormhole back to the 50s.

In-house AI platforms might still be a work in progress, but Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa are ready for prime time and are also included in products from major manufacturers. When VanderWaal invoked Google Assistant during his demo, it responded flawlessly.

There was no shortage of third-party home automation hubs on display, many of them claiming AI capabilities and universal compatibility, but the prospects for most are fading. The one bright spot remains vertical markets, such as home security or commercial properties, where professional installation and support makes economic sense.

Consumers don’t want to wrestle with the things they buy – it’s a lot easier to flip a light switch than it is to wrestle with a Z-wave network or hack at automation scripts. When you speak a command and it just works though, it’s a mainstream product.

Simpler hubs evolve as smart home ecosystem gets more complex

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Doesn’t look complicated.

Smart home hubs made a bit of a comeback at CES this year, with several companies showing second generation products. One company, Wink, leaned in to the self install market with a relatively inexpensive new device that’s intended to be simple and seamless to set up, and incorporates lesson learned from its first generation. Another company, Carrier, rebranded an existing hub as “Cor” and leveraged its existing distribution channel to go after the big system sale end of the market.

The Wink Hub 2 was showcased at the Pepcom press event at CES. It has a $99 price tag and is intended to just work, with automatic device pairing and a smart phone app as the sole controller – no buttons on the device, no web interface. To the extent possible, it’s intended to be network and protocol-agnostic. It’ll connect to Wink’s servers, which is where the smart phone app gets a lot of its smarts, via ethernet or WiFi, and talk to devices via Z-Wave, ZigBee, Bluetooth and a couple of proprietary protocols. Security was also upgraded.

Carrier had the Cor on display at the Showstoppers CES media showcase. It’s intended to be the center of a professionally integrated network of devices. It’s compatible with standard Z-Wave products, which is the only wireless protocol it supports. The Cor is also controlled via a smart app with a cloud-based back end. It’s sold and installed by Carrier’s network of dealers. An installed starter kit – with the hub, security and water sensors and light controls – costs in the $700 range. About 1,000 units have been installed since the Cor was launched last summer.

CES was crammed with home automation devices this year. Many are one-trick ponies with separate smart phone apps and/or web interfaces, which will be increasingly cumbersome and confusing as consumers increasingly install the technology in their homes. Third party hubs might have found a winning selling proposition: unified set up and control on a simple app backed up by smart and secure servers.

Google makes stupid move with smart home product

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If you bought a home automation hub from Revolv, sorry, it’s about to be bricked. Google bought Nest, which in turn bought Revolv, and then decided to turn off the servers that make its gizmos work

So we’re pouring all our energy into Works with Nest and are incredibly excited about what we’re making. Unfortunately, that means we can’t allocate resources to Revolv anymore and we have to shut down the service. As of May 15, 2016, your Revolv hub and app will no longer work.

Thank you for your support and believing in us.

Sucker.

Oops. I said that. They didn’t. Not exactly. But that thought probably passed through the mind of anyone who bought a Revolv hub. With justification.

From a high tech, living-in-dog-years point of view, there’s nothing wrong with what Google did. And yes, I know, Nest is owned by Alphabet, which is now the new name for the Company Formerly Known As Google. And from a high tech, living-in-dog-years point of view, there’s nothing wrong with that.

There’s just one problem.

Consumers don’t care. They give credit or blame to the brand they know, and don’t give a damn what the suits or the geeks say (full disclosure: I used to be both and I’m still a geek). They don’t obsess over light switches, doorbells or coffee pots. They just want the freaking things to work and leave them alone for ten or twenty years.

Shutting down the Revolv servers is a mistake, but by itself it won’t make much difference. If Google and other tech-driven companies keep pulling this same dumb move, though, consumers will shrug off their brands and, eventually, the whole home automation category.

Free advice to Google: don’t confuse a light switch with Orkut.

The IoT hub is dead and Stringify killed it

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Simple solution for home automation chaos.

Stringify has mixed the glue that will bind home automation and the other gizmos and platforms of the Internet of Things together. Two weeks ago, the Los Gatos, California-based startup launched its server-based and mobile centric meta-platform that allows consumers to control 200 products and services offered by dozens of companies via a single smartphone app.

It’s a brilliantly simple proposition: instead of using a dozen different apps to control a dozen different products, a consumer installs one app that talks to a server that talks to a dozen different servers – cloud to cloud, if you like – and makes them all work together.

Organising a company TGIF was the example demoed at the Pepcom showcase at CES last night. Instead of starting the music, lowering the lights and alerting the crew that the keg has been tapped app by app everytime, you use an intuitive graphical interface on the Stringify app to, well, string it all together so you can trigger your standard party procedure whenever the pressure sensor on the kegerator says we’re go for lift-off.

That’s how it works in theory at least. The key is taking advantage of the APIs (application programming interfaces) published by service providers, including traditional home automation players like Google’s Nest as well as social media platforms like Twitter or web services like Dropbox. Home automation is just one of the many Internet and IoT market segments it addresses.

For now, it’s only available for iOS. Android will have to wait, said CEO Mike Yurochko, while they get it right on the iPhone. That’s both an economic necessity – Stringify is still working off of its $6.3 million seed funding round, led by ARTIS Ventures last April – and appropriate. I’ve taken a hack or two at home automation and struggled with an explosion of apps on my phone. Watching the Stringify demo invoked the same total conceptual shift as going from DOS to the Mac’s GUI did 30 years ago.

Lowes leans on AllJoyn, mobile app for updated smart home platform

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Smartphones loom large in Lowes’ plans.

Lowes is rebooting its Iris home automation platform. There are two big differences: the new system is mobile-centric and it was developed in-house with support for Qualcomm’s open source AllJoyn protocols, according to a company spokesman at CES Unveiled this evening.

The platform, which currently supports about 70 products ranging from light switches to thermostats to hot water heaters, is now controlled primarily via an app that’s available for both the iOS and Android operating systems. The first generation system was accessed via a web portal.

Lowes is still cagey about technical details, but it appears that the heavy lifting is being done on its servers. Low power devices – which comprise most of the product line – talk to the hub via Z-wave, Zigbee or Bluetooth protocols (WiFi is also supported), the hub shoots the data to Lowes’ servers via the Internet, and then the servers talk to the mobile app. Bigger, less power consumption-sensitive products skip the hub completely and talk directly to the servers via WiFi (and a home router, of course).

In other words, home automation smarts are moving inexorably to the cloud. Rather than building smart hubs – that need to be configured and operated by sometimes not so smart consumers – the industry is combining hardware with an ongoing service, and only using hubs as communications relays for low power radios. Lowes offers the basic Iris service for free, but charges $10 a month for premium support. The company won’t release any subscriber figures, but if the rollout is any indication, consumer enthusiasm is less than awesome. The spokesman said that it’s available in about 1,500 Lowes stores in the U.S., which is around 80% of the total. That’s despite a pledge at last year’s CES to get it into all of their stores in 2015.

Home automation company faces the and now what hurdle

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Not much new.

Ring – the company formally known as DoorBot – is still keeping it simple and growing slowly. It produces a camera with a motion sensor that attaches to your front door and lets you see who’s there – whether you’re at home or justing looking in from somewhere out on the interwebs via Ring’s Android or iOS app, or a browser. For a fee – $3 per month or $30 for an entire year – it’ll also store six months worth of high definition video.

The latest twist on the product was demoed at Pepcom’s Mobile Focus event in San Francisco last month: a remote doorbell. You plug a second gizmo into a wall socket inside your house, and when someone presses the doorbell button on the camera, it, well, rings. Why not just rely on the doorbell that comes with your house? If your house is like mine, the doorbell rings in the kitchen downstairs, and it’s easy to miss if you’re doing something upstairs. But guess what: that’s not a new problem and doorbell extenders and repeaters are not new products.

So far, Ring has only shipped 48,000 units in the couple of years its been in the market. The challenge for this kind of one trick pony home automation play is to stay relevant as multifunctions systems – think Google’s Nest or Lowes’ Iris – mature and begin to enter the mainstream consumer electronics consciousness. Ring has a roadmap that includes integration with networked door locks like Kevo, but it needs to move faster if it wants to stay in the game.

Wearables flood in, home hubs back out from CES Unveiled

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The pot calls the kettle back.

The 2015 Consumer Electronics Show will be about networked wristbands and coffee pots, if CES Unveiled – the opening press group grope – is anything to judge by. Wearables and home automation – products that lived in a geek ghetto only a couple of years ago – are the hot new categories this year.

Contenders in the wearable fitness tracker category seem to be following a common path: cram some sensors and a Bluetooth module into a sleek looking wristband, write iOS and Android apps to talk to it, then beef it up with some server-side analysis. It’s too early in the show – pre-show, actually – to know which ones are potential champs, but if tonight’s hopefuls are any indication, the winners will be determined by branding and distribution, and not by unique features and functionality.

Tomorrow is when the big boys come out and play. Samsung, LG, Panasonic, Sony and the rest will have their media extravaganzas, and one thing I’ll be looking for is whether they’ve decided to go large on wearables.

Home automation is heading away from systems built around multipurpose consumer hubs or third-party management, and toward a one-off device to cloud server to smart phone app model. Or even, it seems, to a direct device to smart phone connection.

I say seems because it often take several minutes of cross examination and an escalation from the public relations rep to the designated techie to wring an admission that the control loop involves a trip to the company’s servers. And there were just too damn many to drill down that far on all of them. But at least a couple – Kwikset’s Kevo line and Smarter’s WiFi enabled kettles and coffee makers – are making a direct connection.

From the consumer’s point of view, there’s no big picture, just a collection of apps on your smart phone screen that control appliances, locks, lights, whatever. Which looks to be consolidation enough for most people.

The leader in the one-hub-to-rule-them-all derby – Lowes – was promoting the virtual reality shopping system developed by its Innovation Lab and not the Iris home automation platform. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re pulling back on the concept, but it’s an interesting question to follow up on later in the week.

Google positioned to set standards for smart homes

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Nest is in good hands with Google.

The quest for a mass market business model for home automation products and services took a new turn this week, when Google announced it’s buying Nest, which makes networked thermostats and smoke detectors. Since it’s unlikely that Google is going to drop $3.2 billion just to make pretty gadgets, the working assumption has to be that it’s developing an online platform to support networked products. Just as it developed the Android operating system, then bought Motorola’s mobile phone manufacturing business as a development tool and to lock down valuable patents.

Nest devices connect directly to the Internet via WiFi, and can be controlled using the company’s free online web portal or via smart phone apps. Which makes it suited to Google’s way of doing business. No intervening hardware, such as Z-wave or Zigbee hubs, are required; all that’s needed is a home Internet connection and a wireless router. There’s nothing to prevent Google from adding support for hubs later on, of course. But it’s easy to imagine Google adding its own secret sauce to the Nest portal and quickly creating what could well become the web’s default platform for free home automation support.

The retail selling proposition would be orders of magnitude simpler. Instead of trying to teach customers how to program devices and hubs and set up online accounts in order to sell a light switch, salespeople can say “download the app and Google will walk you through it from there”. Expect the usual handwringing from the usual suspects about privacy concerns, but if people are willing to let Google see their email, photos, calendars and contact books, why would they be particularly bothered about their thermostat settings?

Another advantage Google brings is its commitment to standards. If it pushes out an open source platform, as it did with Android, manufacturers can stop worrying about software development and Google can focus on providing services. And consumers can buy stuff that just works.

Lowe’s Iris home automation service goes national

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Point of sale.

“We made the investment to go national”, said Kevin Meagher, vice president and general manager for home automation at Lowes. “We’re pleased with progress to date, we have confidence in the huge potential for the market”.

He was talking about Iris, Lowe’s home automation control platform that was introduced at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show, amid predictions that it was doomed to failure. Instead, as Meagher explained at this year’s show, it’s grown to include about thirty devices from more than a dozen manufacturers. He wouldn’t give out any figures on user adoption, just saying that the initial results were good enough for Lowes to fully roll Iris out, and that it’s now in every Lowes store nationwide.

“The biggest problem is consumer awareness”, he said. People don’t know they can buy a security system or controllable thermostat for $180 and add other devices, such as a newly announced networked water cut-off valve. Meagher believes that once consumers start thinking in terms of remotely controlling devices in the home, they will want to do it via a single web portal, instead of having dozens of single function apps or manufacturers’ web sites.

Once consumers have bought a security or thermostat package that includes the Iris home gateway device, the basic service is free, with premium services – all of them – available for a $10 monthly upgrade.

Whether it’s because they accept that logic or because, as a major national retailer, the company has considerable leverage, every relevant manufacturer selling through Lowes has signed on to supporting Iris.

“We don’t make the devices, we just take our vendors devices and connect them”, Meagher said. “We’re not taking sides, we’re neutral. We’re selling their kit now”.

App-centric approach to home automation previewed at Pepcom

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No need to worry when a ‘bot has your back.

Home automation is taking a step back from integration and interoperability. Judging by the the companies previewing products at the Pepcom Holiday Spectacular in San Francisco last week, the latest, shopper-friendly strategy is to turn smart phones into home control centers simply by crowding single-purpose apps together on a screen.

Three companies – DoorBot, Dropcam and Honeywell – were showing smart phone-networked home automation devices and a fourth – Kevo – takes the direct route to iPhones via Bluetooth.

DoorBot and Dropcam had different twists on video security cameras, but the setup, networking and business models were identical: connect to your home WiFi network, log into a proprietary cloud service and see your streaming video only on supported devices. The basic streaming service is free, with paid upgrades for storing video.

Honeywell showed a thermostat that will accept voice commands via smart phone. It also relies on a WiFi connection to its own free cloud-based service. That’s where the audio commands are interpreted and the interface to iOS and Android apps live.

Not surprisingly, given the reliance on relatively thirsty WiFi radios, all three need external power. Dropcam uses a USB connection for power, making it primarily an indoor cat. DoorBot is designed to replace doorbell buttons, which are typically connected to a low voltage power source, as are thermostats.

The Kevo door lock is battery powered and doesn’t rely on a network connection. To open or close it, you use a Bluetooth link paired with an iOS app or key fob. No Android app yet. One neat twist: you can send a temporary virtual key to a friend’s iPhone or a restricted key to your kid.

None of the products support Z-Wave or ZigBee protocols, or are capable of being networked into a central home control system. The two cameras might be hackable at some level, and the DoorBot’s cool form factor will make it worth a try.

The stovepipe approach to networking and control has its advantages. The products can be sold on a standalone basis and installed with nothing geekier than a screwdriver (well, installing a door lock is little more complicated than that). That’s a good approach for gizmos intended to be bought as holiday presents.

From a functionality standpoint, there is integration. All the products converge on a smart phone screen, which makes it handy enough. Until you want your door bell communicating with your thermostat – and you might some day – that’s sufficient for most consumers. Swapping (so far) unwanted interoperability for painless set up and management is a smart trade for a stocking stuffer.